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How to Get Sh*t Done: Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything So That They Can Achieve Anything

Erin Falconer. North Star Way, $26 (246p) ISBN 978-1-5011-6578-8

Falconer, co-owner of self-improvement website Pick the Brain, makes her print debut with a flimsy, self-important guide to maintaining focus for maximum productivity. The author’s story of following her dream (in her case, of being a professional writer), falling down, and getting back up again is not a new one, but is still revisited in nearly every chapter as she guides readers through better understanding their own personalities, goals, and opportunities. In her view, women tend to be constantly busy, at work and at home, but are not necessarily actually productive; they too often don’t know what will make them happy, or don’t think they deserve happiness in the first place. “You may feel like the most productive person alive,” Falconer points out, “but without a purpose, you’re just busy.” The book’s peppy self-improvement zeal is energizing, and Falconer’s exhortations to silence the self-deprecatory voices in your head and let your own needs shine through are well-taken, but it’s unclear what all this psyching-up is really for, and there isn’t much supporting concrete advice. She seems to be targeting very young women, given the emphasis on the early stages of a career, but her name may not be familiar enough to them to make up for the fluff. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom

Norman G. Finkelstein. Univ. of California, $34.95 (420p) ISBN 978-0-520-29571-1

Political-science professor Finkelstein (Method and Madness), a controversial voice in the contentious debate over Israel’s role in the Middle East, establishes his sharp focus here not on Gaza generally but on “what has been done to Gaza” in a succession of Israeli actions, particularly Operation Cast Lead (2008–2009), Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), and Operation Protective Edge (2014). He delineates that “what has befallen Gaza is a human-made human disaster,” likening it to American policies of Native American removal. Heavy with supportive documentation (footnotes outstrip the text on occasion) and often dense in officialese from the reports of various entities involved (including the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International), Finkelstein debunks much of what he sees about Gaza in the U.S. media and government as reflecting the work of the Israeli lobby. “Perusing this book will require infinite perseverance,” Finkelstein warns, and readers with limited familiarity with the major actors on the ground, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Authority, may feel more overwhelmed than informed. On the other hand, readers with fixed positions, either in agreement or disagreement with Finkelstein, will find much to engage with here. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life

David Giffels. Scribner, $24 (254p) ISBN 978-1-5011-0594-4

Father and son bond over a lugubrious building project in this sweetly mordant saga of death and carpentry. Healthy but motivated by dark whimsy and his looming 50th birthday, essayist Giffels (The Hard Way on Purpose) decided to build his own coffin with the help of his father, Thomas, an 81-year-old engineer with boundless energy and a head for design. The process unfolds as a quirky ode to the art of woodworking, as the duo savor odd bits of wood, pore over blueprints, and merge into the flow of routing and planing in the sacred space of the workshop. As the project develops, death intrudes in earnest and Giffels must deal with the deaths of his vibrant mother and his best friend, John, a corporate executive with a secret life as a bon vivant, connoisseur of underground rock bands, and avant-garde artist (he called his gallery show Pipefitters, Porn and PBR)—and with Thomas’s cancer diagnosis. Giffels treats these heavy themes with a light touch and deadpan humor, drawing vivid, affectionate portraits of loved ones in the richly textured setting of Akron, Ohio. The result is an entertaining memoir that moves through gentle absurdism to a poignant meditation on death and what comes before it. Agent: Daniel Greenberg, Levine, Greenberg, Rostan. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Frontline Turkey: The Conflict at the Heart of the Middle East

Ezgi Basaran. I.B. Tauris, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-1-78453-841-5

Basaran, a Turkish journalist, delivers a concise, if dense, summary of the complex politics and conflicts between Turkey and its Kurdish population, recapping the personalities, parties, and principles that make up this long-running war. Basaran condenses four decades of strife and traces their intersection with the evolution of the Turkish state, now veering toward authoritarianism and Islamist tendencies under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom she labels an “unpredictable and erratic strongman.” The story of the most recent, abortive peace process is not for the novice: muddling factors include rifts in the Turkish government, disputes between Kurdish political parties, the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union, assassinations of Kurds by state security forces, and the role of Kurds fighting in the Syrian civil war. The author lays blame for the collapse of negotiations in 2015 on a complex mix of influences and laments the waste of an “invaluable opportunity: the chance to end a 40-year-old war.” Casual readers of international news will struggle with the swirl of acronyms and names, and Turkey experts may find points to debate. But for a relatively short work, Basaran’s survey covers a huge amount of material and will be of interest to readers already well versed in the subject matter. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Financial Diet: A Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Good with Money

Chelsea Fagan. Holt, $17 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-250-17616-5

Introducing financial concepts with a light touch, Fagan, cofounder of the Financial Diet website, begins with her own story of bad financial behavior and its costs both financially and to her peace of mind. Fagan leads millennials and Generation Zers—the tone and content of the book are clearly aimed at the generations born after 1980—through building a solid understanding of finances and how money affects all areas of life, from one’s career to one’s romantic life. Offering the expected topics of credit, investing, and retirement savings and a sparse glossary of financial terms, this slender book succeeds best as a life guide. Fagan elevates her book above other beginner guides by showing how finances and aspects of lifestyle such as diet and your relationship with money intertwine. In short interviews, experts give out sound advice in their areas of expertise, including on saving, deciding when buying a home makes sense, and knowing when to spend money. In a section useful to those just starting out on their own, after discussing renting versus owning and the cost savings of being able to do basic repairs, a list of tools and their uses is given, and why you’ll need them. The breezy lifestyle-magazine-like writing style and easy-to-digest layout make this guide a useful and readable resource. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Magical World: Superstition and Science from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Derek K. Wilson. Pegasus, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-68177-645-3

With breakneck speed and a very broad brush, British historian Wilson (Mrs. Luther and Her Sisters) runs through many of the intellectual changes that occurred in Europe between 1450 and 1750. Throughout, Wilson attends to the contemporary epistemologies associated with both religion and science while exploring knowledge acquired via observation and faith. He also presents abbreviated summaries of the ideas of most of the leading intellectual figures of the time. The Catholic Church, Wilson notes, was worried about “the uncontrolled quest for knowledge (and, therefore, power)” and even argued that some scientific knowledge “was generated by the devil and his cohorts.” Knowledge, Wilson asserts, is indeed a powerful force and it was the availability of vernacular Bibles during this time that led to “the re-evaluation of every aspect of life.” This reconceptualization, in turn, “resulted in dislocation and warfare throughout Europe that lasted into the eighteenth century.” The shifting balance between religion and science is perhaps best exemplified by Wilson’s discussion of prosecutions for witchcraft, as the public “began to question” the theology of witches largely due to “the activities of the witchfinders.” This is a good overview and there is much of interest here, but Wilson prioritizes breadth rather than depth. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Feel Free: Essays

Zadie Smith. Penguin, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59420-625-2

In this collection of conversational essays, novelist Smith (Swing Time) brings her precise observations and distinct voice to an expansive range of topics. Smith comes across as a writer’s writer, with a love of form, function, and language—“Oh, the semicolons, the discipline!” she exclaims of Edward St. Aubyn. A self-professed “sentimental humanist,” Smith is alarmed by social media platforms such as Facebook and is smartly cutting on American race relations, discussed through pop-culture reference points that include Jay-Z lyrics and movies such as Get Out, “a compendium of black fears about white folk.” She is lacerating on the subject of British politics, blasting the ruling class’s “Londoncentric solipsism”; rather than policy changes, she advocates for nothing more—or less—than art and literature’s power to free the mind. At their most memorable, the essays are character studies, whether of a culture, such as the “limitless” Manhattan of “Find Your Beach”; a place, such as Rome’s Villa Borghese in “Love in the Gardens”; or a person, such as Billie Holliday in “Crazy They Call Me.” Smith’s explicit discomfort with any authoritative stance—“I have no real qualifications to write as I do”—feels a bit disingenuous, when this collection’s chief appeal lies in the revealing glimpses it affords into the mind and creative process of one of the most admired novelists writing in English. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America

T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. Crown, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5247-5993-3

Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporters Miller and Armstrong excavate a disturbing strain of misogyny in American culture in this account of the mistreatment of victims of sexual assault in the criminal justice system. The book opens with the aftermath of the 2008 rape of an 18-year-old woman near Seattle. Marie had just aged out of foster care and was living on her own for the first time when a man with a knife broke into her house in the middle of the night and assaulted her. When Marie reported the crime, the authorities and her former foster parents were skeptical of her story. When questioned further by the police, Marie recanted under the impression that she had dreamt up the incident; she was subsequently charged with false reporting. Over two years later, an investigation into a similar crime in Colorado yielded evidence that Marie was indeed raped. The authors use this dramatic, almost unbelievable sequence of events as a springboard to a broader survey of the disturbing ways victims of rape are treated in America. Closely examining how rape is investigated and tried in the U.S., including the development of the rape kit in the 1970s and the origins of the “Hale warning” (an instruction to jurors in rape trials to be wary of false accusations), the book shines a critical light on an urgent and timely subject. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Close Encounters with Humankind: A Paleoanthropologist Investigates Our Evolving Species

Sang-Hee Lee, with Shin-Young Yoon. Norton, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-63482-2

Lee, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, approaches an array of topics in the field of human evolution with candor, clarity, and brevity. Among her subjects are the role “social childbirth” plays in “the true beginnings of humanity,” whether early humans came out of Africa or Asia, and the factors that “led to the unique human model of family.” The ways that the science of human evolution is evolving alongside technological innovations and new fossil finds thematically links the book’s discrete topics. Lee’s research offers insights into current debates and also reveals new findings; for example, data regarding burial practices shows that humans began to live long enough to witness the births of their grandchildren only 30,000 years ago, in the European Upper Paleolithic—not some two million years ago as previously thought. Lee does not go in-depth on any particular topic, though she provides some interesting narrative details, particularly her hair-raising near encounter with the yakuza while trying to authenticate the missing remains of the “Peking Man.” Though specialists might grimace at Lee’s lack of nuance, lay readers will be grateful for her straightforward work. Illus. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Career Manifesto: Discover Your Calling and Create an Extraordinary Life

Mike Steib. TarcherPerigee, $18 (288p) ISBN 978-0-14312-934-9

Steib, CEO of the XO Group media company, taps into the frustration overachievers feel when their career trajectories fall short in this motivating and action-oriented guide. Steib identifies what he calls the five pillars of success, namely purpose, plan, productivity, people, and presence. These five pillars, Steib asserts, will help readers reconfigure goals, increase productivity, and overcome obstacles both in and out of the office. To stimulate this transformation, he offers up a series of necessary steps, including “telling yourself the truth,” “thinking for yourself,” and “changing your stripes.” He details exercises aimed toward gaining a sense of direction and control, such as creating “impact maps” and “happiness matrices.” Steib’s chapter on increasing productivity to the point of getting “10 times as much done” is particularly sharp and widely applicable, imparting beneficial advice on following effective habits such as generating “if-then” formulas, managing willpower, and systematically measuring results. In chapters devoted to “people,” he explores “achieving impact with others” in various capacities, such as through networking, attending meetings, and collaborating on projects. For a brief discussion of “presence,” Steib brings in insights from happiness studies. His book lays out a sound and logical approach, with easily applicable and customizable advice aplenty. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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